Was There Death Before the Fall?

Was there death before the fall of man?
Was there death before the fall of man?

Someone recently wrote to me asking, “Christians believe that death entered into the world through sin. Check out Romans 5:13-14 if you don’t believe me. Yet evolution proves that death existed before the fall. How do you explain that?”

This is a great question, one which I suspect many Christians haven’t given much thought.

In this article I’d like to argue, from the book of Genesis, that death did indeed exist before the fall (e.g. the death of animals and plants), and that when the Bible (such as in Romans 5) speaks of death entering the world through sin, it’s talking about human death. But first, let’s take a look at the passage in question:

12 Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned— 13 sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

As you can see, Paul’s focus here is on death spreading to men. He’s not talking about the death of animals or plants. Before we look at each of those, let’s take a look at why Adam and Eve were originally intended to be immortal in the first place

The Tree of Life

The second chapter of Genesis seems to suggest that the tree of life which was in the midst of the garden (Gen 2:9) was the means by which Adam and Eve were to live forever. God had given them permission to eat from that tree, since he said they “may freely eat of every tree of the garden” (Gen 2:16) except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

By losing access to this tree through original sin, man lost the opportunity to live forever. In Genesis chapter three we read that God drove him out of the Garden of Eden, “lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.”  It then says that God placed “cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”


Okay, if the tree of life was necessary for Adam and Eve to live forever, one might reasonably ask, did animals have access to the tree of life? The answer seems to be no.

If the tree of life was unique, it might have been enough for Adam and Eve to eat from, but it would never have been enough for all of the animals of the world to eat from. This may be another sign that the animals were not understood to have the tree of life for their food. If so then the text of Genesis itself would suggest that, while man was meant to be immortal, animals were not. That would support the idea, based on St. Paul’s statement, that it was human death that entered the world through the Fall, not animal death.

Furthermore, we should note that giving “every green plant” to animals as food does not mean that some of them weren’t also carnivores. It’s not as if, before original sin lions ate dandelions and toadstools and only afterward did they begin picking on poor old wildebeest . This is something Thomas Aquinas wrote about in his Summa Theologica:

In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon.

(We should add, lest anyone be tempted to think that this is a forced retreat in the face of modern evolutionary theory, that Thomas wrote these words nearly 550 years prior to the birth of Charles Darwin.)


What about plants? Is there evidence in Genesis to suggest that plants died before the fall?

My colleague Jimmy Akin points addressed this in a recent post of his:

We can go even further, though, because of God’s permission to eat fruit. That means death. Specifically, the death of the fruit’s flesh (and its seeds, if those get chewed up, too).The fruit’s flesh (and its seeds) are alive. They’re made of living cells.

The seeds are even little fruit embryos, which makes them independent organisms. Of course, they aren’t human. They aren’t rational beings, so they don’t have rights or a right to life, and it’s okay to eat them. But they do die when we eat and digest them. The same thing is true of other plant matter we eat. So we have reason to think, even on a highly literal reading of Genesis, that there was plant death before the Fall.

Of course, there is the question of how literally the details of this text should be taken. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the early chapters of Genesis contain symbolic elements:

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents (CCC 390)

But even if you take some of the details very literally, it still looks like animals and plants died before the Fall–consistent with the findings of modern science.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy: Evolution Vs. God? & Evolution Vs. Genesis?

18 thoughts on “Was There Death Before the Fall?

  1. I was actually thinking a lot about that question lately, and my reasoning led me to the same conclusion as yours. Though I came to this conclusion from another way: when the serpent tempts Eve, she says that if she eats the fruit, she will die, and then he lied saying she wouldn’t. From this I say that she knew exactly what death was, before it “entered the world”. My conclusion was then that the death in question is the spiritual death, separation from God, leading to physical death.

    I also realized that, plants and animals, having vegetative and sensitive souls, are by their own nature corruptible. Meaning, sin or no sin, their soul is not immortal, which mean it’s in their nature to die and cease to exist at some point. That’s how Adam and Eve knew what death was, they knew that if they ate the fruit, they would end up like the animals.

  2. Well written, Matt! As for the carnivores, etc. I’ve always argued that this would have been the effect of Lucifer’s rebellion – having been cast down to earth he could work his evil among animals, but had no power over man until Original Sin. Lucifer’s rebellion brought these evils, but could not bring sin because animals are incapable of sin. Dinosaurs feeding on each other, for example, long before man was created, was part of the rebellion. But those evils had no power to affect man – he was in Paradise – until Original Sin. After that, man was no longer immune to the natural carnivorous order, and could be eaten by lions, sharks, etc.

    1. Exactly. Paradise, the Garden, was a beautiful, safe haven. That doesn’t mean the rest of the earth was the same. Why else would mankind have been kicked out of the garden?

  3. Great post. From my reading on the topic, I think the idea that animals were always subject to death is, and always has been, the unanimous teaching among Catholics. As Fr. Peter Fehlner puts it, if it were otherwise, we would be spending all our time in paradise “cleaning out the stables.”

    One interesting point of controversy though, is that- though all agree man would not die if sin had never entered the world- there is debate over whether man would be immortal. Never dying is not the same thing as immortality.

    St. Thomas Aquinas held that, prior to the fall, man lived in a state of immortality. Bl. John Duns Scotus (and seemingly St. Augustine) believed, on the other hand, that mortality was always a feature of the human condition. They held that, if Adam and Eve had never sinned, they would have been assumed into Heaven when their time of probation was complete. The same would apply to the rest of humanity, and thus, the death of persons would never occur. The Scotistic view emphasizes that human decay and death is a natural feature of the world, and not- in itself- a penalty for sin.

    Thomists, of course, also believe that- in the absence of sin- each person would be assumed when their probationary time was complete. According to them, however, this has nothing to do with death not entering the world.

    1. This is what I think too, since it is what happened to Mary, after our time on earth, we would be assumed to heaven.

  4. My understanding was that death entered the world through sin. It meant both spiritual and physical. That man would not die and after a period of time on earth man would be assumed into heaven. Adam and Eve were warned that death would occur if they disobeyed. That is why Eve knew about death. Adam also. But I do not believe that death was in the original plan. At the end doesn’t it say that the lion will lay down with the kid. No more deeath. As it would have been before the fall.

  5. “In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon.”

    Does that mean that before the fall animals were not living in harmony with mankind, could they have lashed out against mankind?

  6. It has been said that man is the only creature that knows (realizes) that he is alive. A life realized…or the potential for such.

    Then…Genesis 3: 22-24.

    1. This is from a DeHarbe’s Catechism: Did the fatal consequences of sin fall upon man only? Ans: The punishment of God was aklso inflicted upon the earth, which had been created for man.
      “Cursed is the earth in thy work,” God said to Adam; “with labor and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee” (Gen. 3:17+18). I am no biblical scholar. But this is why i think that the earth and creatures were changed also. That all of creation was affected.and not just man alone. I am open to learning though.

      1. “I am no biblical scholar.”

        Ditto that, Mark.

        As I peruse the scriptures, I’m taken by the fact that “the curse” seems always from the perspective of the man. Work, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. Sweating and toiling, on the other hand, without the cooperation of Holy Spirit (God’s Creative Force), made it difficult to expand the boundaries of the Garden, and childbirth and child-rearing became challenging – if not agonizing.

        But I see nothing that would convince me that animals designed as carnivores would be anything but carnivores.

      2. The question then is: Will there be animals in heaven after the end of time? There will be no more death and I do not think that there will be anymore creating going on(babies,animals, trees, etc.). But that is speculation on my part. Will animals be killing animals in the eternal world after time? I think again as the decaying of things may be part of the change after the fall. I agree that man has to die for sinning. But creation was altered also with the decaying. Which if you think about it is death to plants. Although it is not stated in the bible one way or another. It seems that animals were not a threat to man before the fall. No death threat to man or else death would have entered the world without the original sin.

      3. Dunno, Mark.

        Is heaven a “place” or a “condition”? Is it really about location…or is it about relationship?

        Seems to me that Adam could, at one time, take a stroll with his God “in the breezy part of the day.”

        “The meek shall inherit the earth,” as it were.

        What was God’s original purpose…and is it even POSSIBLE for man to frustrate that purpose?

        Personally, I don’t mind the anticipation. For me, everyday is like Christmas.

      4. Carlos, I cannot say either. But Jesus did say about heaven that there are many mansions there. I do not know the original words and so I cannot say if that is a figurative statement meaning differing degrees of happiness or something else. I have dialogued with people who are sure that animals are in heaven. Either way it is a good chat God bless.

  7. The thing i struggle with most about this interpretation of genesis is that God creates the world and says that it is ‘very good’. To be honest – i don’t feel that a world created through the pain and agony of animals (natural selection) over millions of years is worthy of God saying ‘very good’.

  8. i can’t believe i missed something so obviously logical as this. Boy i really was brainwashed as a protestant. erroneous teaching results in irrational thinking i guess

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